ROME (Reuters) - The United Nations is preparing to deploy up to 250 Nepalese peacekeepers to Libya to guard its base in the capital as part of a plan to return its operations to the country, the head of the organization's mission there said on Friday.


Backed by Western governments, the United Nations is trying to heal a rift between Libya's rival factions in order to stabilize the country and to tackle militant violence and people smuggling from Libya's northern coast.


The mission has been based in Tunis since 2014 but has gradually increased its presence in Libya and has been planning for months for a fuller return.


The military unit would probably consist of around 150 people, Jean-Pierre Lacroix, U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, told a news briefing in Geneva.


"To make sure that we protect our colleagues as they deploy in Tripoli there will be a guard unit which will be basically U.N. military personnel coming from Nepal," Lacroix said.


Envoy Ghassan Salame told Italian newspaper La Stampa that "a little under 250" peacekeepers "can be deployed in the coming weeks".

Deploying the peacekeepers to the base in Tripoli "will mean that around the beginning of October we can carry out a significant part of our work in Libya," said Salame, who has headed the mission since June.

Security in Tripoli and other parts of western Libya is fragile and armed groups that are largely unaccountable hold power on the ground.

Libya slipped into turmoil after a NATO-backed uprising that toppled Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. A U.N.-backed government set up in Tripoli last year has struggled to assert its authority and is opposed by factions that control eastern Libya.

In July, rival leaders pledged to work toward elections in 2018 and a conditional ceasefire. Salame said constitutional and electoral laws would have to be written to ensure any vote brought lasting change.

"We need to be sure everyone accepts the final result," he said. "Let's not forget that presidential elections would be the first ever."

(Reporting by Isla Binnie; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Aidan Lewis; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)